Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Ronald Reagan, conservatism, and the decline of the American Empire

I received an e-mail yesterday from an old college friend asking me why the right has canonized Ronald Reagan. I thought about it, thought about it some more, and came up with a reply, written fairly hastily, that I reprint here.


I think Reagan's victory in 1980 was the distillation of years and years of conservative activism. It all got started back in '64, when Goldwater's candidacy represented a new dawn for conservatism (although, in retrospect, and compared to today's conservatives, Goldwater hardly seems all that extremist). LBJ won easily, but that defeat is what launched what I think is broadly understood as "Movement" conservatism. Money from wealthy donors started pouring into think tanks like Heritage and Cato and into universities through various foundations (some of which paid for my graduate education) and into the media. It was a concerted effort, I would say, to topple what was seen as America's hegemonic liberal establishment. It's an interesting story, and I'd recommend checking out David Brock's The Republican Noise Machine for more.

Nixon subsequently energized conservatives, but he was never Goldwater. There were Vietnam and Watergate, of course, but more than that Nixon was a sort of anti-conservative Republican, given his support for price controls and other regulations to address the economic crisis of the time, his efforts at detente with China and the Soviet Union, and his somewhat moderate social policies. (This is why, in retrospect, those who have come to admire, or re-admire, Nixon tend to be politically moderate. Needless to say, though, this is not to excuse all that made Nixon such an appalling figure.)

Reagan, meanwhile, had emerged as the leader of the new conservative movement. He was a prominent anti-Communist in Hollywood, but it was as governor of California that he became a political giant on the right. He failed in his presidential bid in '76, but he was then well-positioned to be swept four years later. Remember, the '70s were a miserable decade: Vietnam, Watergate, stagflation, malaise, the Iran hostage situation, a hardening of the Cold War with Brezhnev in the Kremlin. Reagan was seen as the heralder of a new beginning, both for America in general and for conservatism in particular. And, to conservatives, he was pretty much everything they'd been dreaming of since '64: anti-government, anti-tax, anti-regulation, anti-abortion, anti-Communist. He was, to them, he represented a turn away from the legacy of the '60s, the legacy that conservatism rejected and that continued to motivate them: civil rights, feminism, pacifism, etc.

It was a period of great upheaval in America. To liberals and progressives, it was a period of change for the better, of liberation. To conservatives, though, it was a period of destruction, and they longed for the way things were before. They still do. Watch Hannity and Beck and O'Reilly and Limbaugh. They all talk nostalgically about the way it was, about how great it was. Of course, it was never that way, and, to many -- women, minorities, the poor -- the way it really was was horrible.

But no matter. Reagan tapped into a combination of delusional optimism and abject fear. Somehow, in him, America was still the greatest place on earth, a place where women and minorities were still kept down, where military might made sure everything was right, where the haves could have what they wanted without regard for the have-nots, and whre the New Deal and the Great Society and the great upheavals of previous decades, both domestically and internationally, had never happened. It was "Morning in America," white-picket fences sparkled in the sunshine, the flag flew in the warm summer breeze, and there was no need to worry about the impending decline of the American Empire.

Somehow, that is, Reagan made conservatism right -- to conservatives, to much of the country. Liberalism had lost, not just electorally, with Reagan's win in '80, but also socially, with a turn to the right throughout the decade to come. In this sense, he was a genuinely transformational figure, as conservatism became not just a legitimate alternative to liberalism but, for a time, the triumphal American ideology. Or so it seemed, and as so it still seems to many on the right. (In actual fact, as Neil Postman once wrote, Reagan was actually a committed liberal/libertarian given his unflinching support for the free market even above this theocratic leanings, his unwavering belief in progress manufactured in and through the free market.) Even as conservatism triumphed, the country grew more liberal and more progressive during the '80s. It may be that that was inevitable, given the general liberal awakening that was the defining feature of the post-WWII years, but he did very little to stop it.

But that is of no concern to conservatives, who have come to regard his presidency with the same utopian nostalgia that they regard that earlier and supposedly better time in American history. And at a time when conservatism is largely without ideas, a failed and bankrupt ideology, that nostalgia sort of makes sense. If only America could return to Reagan, they say -- to his policies, but also, and more poignantly, to what he represented, to what he symbolized. The bad stuff -- Iran-Contra, notably -- they ignore. With respect to policy, it's the anti-government, anti-tax, pro-"family values," hawkish foreign and military policy stuff that guides them. But, again, it's much more than that. It's the flag-waving, and all that means, that seems to be the driving force. Americans, and not just conservatives, badly want to believe in America, or "America," again, and it's difficult to, given where America is in the world today, given all that has happened.

Obama, to me, is much closer to the spirit of America than Reagan ever was -- think back to Obama's brilliant speech on race in Philadelphia in '08 -- but Reagan remains much more accessible, in an emotional sense, than Obama ever will be (despite his historic victory in '08 and all that that victory meant especially to black Americans), and, to conservatives, Reagan not only fits the narrative as Obama never will but actually wrote the narrative that continues to define them.

You see, I think America is in decline, and, deep down, I think Americans sense that, if they don't know it already. This is more true of conservatives, who have divorced themselves from reality, than is it of liberals, but it is a phenomenon that transcends partisan divides. What I sense from Americans now is fear, fear of a world that has passed them by. Many are afraid of what is happening at home -- increasing multiculturalism and the recognition of gay rights, for example -- as well as of what is happening internationally, with the rise of China, the threat of Islamic jihadism, climate change, and so on.

This explains, in part, Obama's success, as many Americans have come to embrace, courageously and with open minds, the sort of change that he campaigned on -- even if we haven't seen much of it yet. (Obama is about hope for a better future that may come to be, whereas Reagan conservatism is about longing for a past that never was.) But it also explains, in part, in large part, the rise of the sort of fanatical conservatism you see on Fox News, in the right-wing blogosphere, and throughout much of the Republican Party -- the politics of fear, the vilification of the Other, ideological extremism, the complete inability to deal with the harsh realities of the world with anything other than simplistic notions of good and evil.

And it explains, also in large part, the canonization -- indeed, the deification -- of Ronald Reagan, in whom conservatives trust, and who used the flag and patriotic happy talk to shield America, and the American people, from the truth.

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  • It is much simpler than this. Reagan took sides. That was his appeal. It does not matter whether America is in decline; it may be that, as you say, everybody knows it, but everybody also thinks it will last out their life. What everybody also knows is that America cannot be unified and most people -- left and right -- prefer leaders who don't ry to pretend that it can, because that pretense is too absurd to even be useful.

    By Anonymous Frank Wilhoit, at 8:36 PM  

  • Wow. That was a truly despicable piece of excrement masquerading as a news article. Your analysis is completely and horrifically insulting to every one on the Right, libertarians and conservatives. You Sir, don't know the first thing about us, or what makes us tick, and most especially why we adore Ronald Reagan (and Barry Goldwater.)

    It comes down to one simple reason: We just want to be left alone. We don't want anything from the government, nor do we wish to give anything to the government (outside of defending our borders from illegals and terrorists.)

    Reagan and Goldwater understood this. You liberals are just a bunch of Ninny busy-bodies always wanting to control other people's lives.

    Why can't you just live and let live? Just leave us alone!

    No damned seat belt laws, no restrictions on gambling, no laws telling us what to do in our bedrooms, no restrictions or regulations on our businesses, no taxes, no regulations on our gun ownership, no violations of our property rights.

    Just leave us the hell alone.

    Eric Dondero, Publisher
    Libertarian Republican

    By Blogger Eric Dondero, at 1:01 PM  

  • You want anarchy. Don't cloak it in terminology, you want to live like an animal with no laws save the law of the claw, a state of constant struggle where the powerful rape, pillage and enslave whom they can until some bigger animal eats them in turn.

    By Blogger Capt. Fogg, at 10:15 AM  

  • Frank,

    "What everybody also knows is that America cannot be unified and most people -- left and right -- prefer leaders who don't ry to pretend that it can, because that pretense is too absurd to even be useful."

    We've been unified enough to get some things done, but yes we are a contentious, selfish, small minded, belligerent, superstitious, xenophobic and often amoral country and will remain so as long as people take advantage of that, promote it and use it against us.

    There's nothing in our genetic structure to make us that way, is there, so why do we act like vicious dogs all at each other's throats?

    By Blogger Capt. Fogg, at 10:20 AM  

  • Eric Dondero "No damned seat belt laws, no restrictions on gambling, no laws telling us what to do in our bedrooms, no restrictions or regulations on our businesses, no taxes, no regulations on our gun ownership, no violations of our property rights."

    And yet, for your libertarian leanings, movement conservatism has given home to the Religious Right and the neo-Confederacy to ensure a larger voting block.

    "No damned seat belt laws," Yes, this is liberal / progressive, and it saves lives. I really don't understand your issue with this one.

    "no restrictions on gambling," Because the house can cheat? If you want to gamble, it should be kept fair.

    "no laws telling us what to do in our bedrooms," This is so f'ing offensive and I have to point out I have no respect for you at this point. The Religious Right *on your side* is the group dictating what everyone but them does in the bedroom. Most progressives I know think prostitution should be legal and regulated to keep it safe for all involved. Our side wants to make sure whatever you do is consensual (that includes no children, as they do not have the information or maturity to understand such decisions) and not harmful (kink has its limits). Beyond that, I am sick and F'ing tired of the sh*t-for-brains stupidity that since our side thinks gays, lesbians, and safe / sane /consensual kink is OK between those old enough to properly consent, that somehow "treads" on the rights of conservatives in the bedroom.

    "no restrictions or regulations on our businesses," So, you should be able to put as much lead in baby food as you want? Like China? A park I played in often when growing up is now partially an EPA hazard site until 2015 (I found this out in the early 80's) because the small lumber mill next door was unregulated.

    "no taxes," And the government will have an income... how?

    "no regulations on our gun ownership," Personally, I do not believe citizens need military grade assault weapons or split / armor piercing armor. I also think you should not be able to sell guns to whomever you want. We have background checks for a reasons beyond brown people boarding airplanes. (And yes, I've often noticed how many on the right say that "those" [brown] people should have extra checks on airplanes, but their own rights for assault weaponry are sacrosanct. As long as you're a white conservative christian, it's OK.)

    "no violations of our property rights." The phrase "property rights" and "state's rights" entered the conservative lexicon after the abolition of slavery, and "state's rights" was reinforced under the Southern Strategy after schools were desegregated.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:57 PM  

  • That was a thought-provoking article. Thank you.

    By Anonymous brandon, at 11:57 AM  

  • If I may address Mr. Dondero's comments, apparently what conservatives REALLY want is for white Christians to be able to force everyone else to live under THEIR rules of conduct and most of all, apparently, the right to be left ignorant of all fact that involves more than a black and white interpretation of the world that surrounds them. I would be more than happy to allow them this pleasure but they can't just sit by themselves and wallow in their stupidity, they have to drag the rest of us into it with them.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:32 AM  

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